Plugged In Blog

Municipalities Investing in Sustainability: A Timely and Unbeatable Opportunity


The ‘green’ revolution was once trumpeted by a vocal and passionate minority of folks. Today, the march towards sustainability has become one embraced by popular demand across sectors, geographies, and classes. Sustainability is eagerly discussed in board rooms as well as at the grassroots level, in urban centers and in small rural towns, and at every step along the supply chain.

Meeting lofty goals of this green movement today is largely driven by public policy, and governments across the country (and, indeed, the world) are all putting forth clean energy, sustainability, and climate targets and actions to meet those aggressive ambitions. Whether those government targets require a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by installing renewable energy assets, committing to the electric vehicle (EV) transformation, or via carbon-negative strategies of protecting trees or other natural environments, the political will to be sustainable has never been greater than it is today. And that fact is driven by the understanding that:

  1. Sustainability is the rational economic choice
  2. Policies that embrace clean energy and green actions are increasingly popular for their local benefits to environments and job markets
  3. Preserving the planet for the future is an existential priority

While these issues are actively debated on the federal and even state government stages, municipalities have some unique opportunities given how close they are to their constituents and communities and how tangible results can be seen, felt, and even measured. As such, municipalities carry some of the greatest ability to embrace a sustainable future.

Where Cities Can Uniquely Succeed

To set the stage, more than 100 American cities have already pledged to meet the net-zero future. By signing onto the ‘Cities Race to Zero,’ the mayors of these cities (who represent more than 54 million Americans collectively) have shown a commitment to a sustainable future. While policies related to climate and clean energy notoriously get stuck in gridlock in the U.S. Congress, the smaller representative bodies for municipal governments are better poised to make those commitments for their citizens today.

The Cities Race to Zero partner cities around the Word.

Even better, leaders of city governments can bring those direct benefits of sustainability to their citizens in a tangible and deliverable way. For the everyday citizen, if the state or federal government passes legislation with millions of dollars for clean energy, those new solar panels could easily be installed thousands of miles from their home, never to be seen by them. When national policy funds EV chargers across a major highway, it could very well be a highway they will never drive on. But for a city council or a mayor to make a commitment to sustainable projects, the citizens of those cities will see those projects and, more importantly, see and feel the benefits.  

Making these sustainable projects feel closer to home creates a positive feedback loop: the citizen who is excited to see EV chargers in their local downtown may consider buying an EV themselves; that new EV driver may love the feeling that a sustainable decision gives them so much that they go the next step and consider installing solar on their rooftop; that owner of a rooftop solar system may want to make embracing clean energy easier for everyone in their city, and so they start working with local politicians to fund incentives and programs to widen to reach of such technologies. This chain result is made possible thanks to local, municipal action towards sustainability. Engaging with local citizens in this way offers two-way benefits and feedback, and municipal leaders can and must embrace those abilities to push forward as key sustainability leaders.

Benefits by the Numbers of City-Level Sustainability

Before embracing sustainability in decision-making, leaders will understandably want to know why they should do so. While for many people sustainability as a key factor in decisions has become second nature, it’s always key to look at some of the benefits and the data behind these opportunities:

Benefits by the Numbers to the Municipalities

  • Economic Benefits: According to research from the New Climate Economy, “More compact, connected, and coordinated cities are worth up to US$17 trillion in economic savings by 2050 and will stimulate economic growth by improving access to jobs and housing.”
  • Equitable Access to Benefits: In integrating equity into its sustainable building standards, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) noted that “Housing insecurity, a shortage of quality jobs, and limited access to public amenities and services are chronic conditions that marginalized communities face today. Those inequities can only be exacerbated by climate change.”

Benefits by the Numbers to the Citizens of the City

  • Grid resilience: According to research in Berkeley, California, the use of solar and energy storage across the city “reduced day-to-day energy consumption by 36 to 43 percent and reduced diesel generator use during an outage by up to 40%.”
  • Public health: According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “more than 80% of people living in urban areas that monitor air pollution are exposed to air quality levels that exceed its limits, with populations in low-income cities are the most impacted,” so a shift toward sustainability is critical from a health perspective.

Technologies and Programs for Municipalities to Consider

One of the earliest but most challenging decisions in a government that wants to move towards sustainability is not a lack of options, but rather identifying the optimal combination of programs from a buffet of choices available. Every corner of each sector of the economy today has its own way to build in and fund sustainability, which is terrific progress but it also means that leaders are faced with competing avenues for sustainability funding. Leaders may be afraid of choosing incorrectly and failing to deliver on their promises or even just getting mired in paralysis of choice.

But the benefit that municipal-level leaders have compared with their peers in state and federal government is in the unique opportunities they have:

Directly Connecting Renewable Energy

For cities that are connected to municipal utilities, the decision on the power for the city is guided by what is best for the citizens (rather than with major investor-owned utilities, or IOUs, that must also do what benefits their shareholders). For such cities, this primary driver means that if the citizens want clean energy, then the leaders can make that happen directly.

For one, municipalities can install solar and wind generation assets on city land, pumping renewable and carbon-free electricity directly into the local grid. Where the land or funds to do so aren’t available, cities can also contract via power purchase agreements (PPAs) with major renewable asset developers and/or owners to buy renewable power directly from them. Either way, cities can guide where their energy is coming from in a way that can directly respond to the will of their people.

Further, municipal utilities can be a key leader in the shift towards distributed energy. Rather than continuing the long-established trend of centralized power plants transmitting energy miles and miles to end users, distributed energy assets (which include tools like large-scale wind farms and rooftop solar installations) generate energy closer to the point of consumption and distributed across the grid. Such distributed energy brings new clean energy opportunities to a city, which leaders can foster using economic incentives or even by simply running educational campaigns to highlight new affordable opportunities. Either way, cities can use these tools to put the power in the hands of the citizens. While IOUs may be more reticent to push consumers to be ‘prosumers’ because it takes potential revenue out of their pockets, municipal utilities are built on the basis of benefitting their citizens even if it drops the revenue for the utility.

Making City Buildings and Fleets Sustainable

Another key opportunity for municipalities comes from the power of procurement: leveraging the purchases of energy assets in city buildings and transportation fleets to drive market trends. For city buildings, which include everything from city hall to schools to libraries, municipalities can ensure they are buying energy that is clean. If a local renewable project developer is looking to install a solar farm, for example, a long-term contract signed between the renewable developer and the city can provide a long-term and reliable contract that ensures such renewable projects are profitable, while also ensuring the city’s assets move towards net-zero carbon.

Cities are also often owners of notable fleets of vehicles, such as police vehicles, buses, garbage trucks, and more. In the same way, by converting these vehicles to more sustainable energy sources (whether EVs, hydrogen vehicles, hybrid vehicles, or otherwise), city leaders can immediately create market demand for that fuel source. For example, the EV transformation often runs into a chicken and egg problem where EV chargers wouldn’t be profitable without people driving such cars nearby, but people are hesitant to buy EVs if they haven’t publicly seen such EV chargers. By committing their substantial fleets to EVs, cities can send a market signal that their municipality will be one that fosters the electrification of vehicles and empowers their citizens to join the EV market.

Even further, everything purchased and used by the city can be made more sustainable. City offices can purchase recycled materials, they can participate in composting programs, reduce their use of plastic products, and more. While an individual household making any of these sustainable decisions is a positive step, city decisions have a naturally larger footprint and can thus move the needle even more significantly.

Clean Energy in City Parks

Another key opportunity uniquely available to municipal leaders to be shepherds of sustainability is via their city parks and open spaces where events may often be held. For cities that are putting on outdoor events, whether that means concerts, parties, street festivals, farmers' markets, or otherwise, they often require power to run equipment. Getting mobile power to these locations often requires the use of diesel- or gasoline-powered generators. Cities that want to walk the walk when it comes to sustainability, though, have started to look towards mobile batteries instead.

Whereas generators are not only loud and odor-emitting (which can hamper an otherwise enjoyable event), they are also known for their localized pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, backup generators used in these instances can be responsible for 200 to 600 times more emissions than typical electricity use. Modular and mobile batteries, like the ones offered by Joule Case, can be charged by the grid or renewable sources and then brought easily and readily to wherever the energy is needed. Not only are such batteries already more sustainable than the traditionally used generators, but as more renewable energy is integrated into the city’s grid that just means the net carbon footprint of electricity from those batteries will likewise be even more sustainable. Using this technology represents a near-term and long-term commitment to sustainability.

These several opportunities represent just a few examples of unique opportunities for municipalities to create change and progress in their backyards. Investing in sustainability continues to evolve, and doing so can touch upon energy, transportation, industry, construction, and so much more.

Leading By Example: City Use Cases

To demonstrate that these opportunities for sustainability are not simply empty platitudes, what follows are some key examples of engaged cities that are putting sustainable strategies to the best possible use for their communities:

Community Solar

Cedar Falls, Iowa, has been a leader in the municipal pursuit of community solar, connecting a 1.5-megawatt (MW) community solar farm in 2016, continuing to grow the program as customer interest exploded. To date, this program has produced 2,600 megawatt-hours (MWh) each year.

Read more about this municipal success here.

Grid-Tied Energy Storage

Ashburnham, Massachusetts, built a 5 MWh grid-tied battery project in 2019, with the energy storage capabilities being put to use by reducing the cost to its citizens for the transmission and capacity of electricity. City leaders celebrated this project as being one that not only reduced emissions from the local power grid but one that did so in a way that reduced rather than increased customer bills.

Read more about this municipal success here.

Regulations to Incentive EVs

Quincy, Washington, made the transition to EVs for its citizens a priority by passing a local law that provided a 10% bonus density credit for the incorporation of alternative energy considerations, which included EV charging infrastructure. By making it more attractive for building developers to install EVs, the city created a virtually no-cost way to support the EV transition for its citizens.

Read more about this municipal success here.

Providing Transportation Options Other Than Cars

Portland, Oregon, took the sustainable transportation trend even further by providing its citizens with a multitude of ways to move around the city without adding any carbon emissions to the air. By embracing public transportation, biking infrastructure, and walkable city considerations, about 1/4 of its citizens go about their daily commute without ever getting in a car.

Read more about this municipal success here.

Residential Energy Storage Programs

Fort Collins, Florida, sought to embrace the opportunity energy storage brings to the grid much like Ashburnham did, but to do so in a way that empowered its citizens to be the main drivers and beneficiaries. With its residential battery storage program, Fort Collins offers net metering rates, provides incentives to pay for part of new battery installations, and offers educational opportunities on how to best utilize these batteries to reduce utility bills.

Read more about this municipal success here.

Net Zero Carbon Municipal Buildings

San Diego, California, has looked to lead the move to net-zero by starting with its own buildings first. As a key example, San Diego undertook a project to create Net Zero Energy Libraries that involve not only energy retrofits and on-site solar energy systems but also educational programs to use these upgrades as an educational opportunity for its citizens to learn and adapt similar strategies in their homes or businesses.

Read more about this municipal success here.

Taking the First Step

What’s important to note when reviewing these examples of cities taking the lead on sustainability is that the pursuit of these goals isn’t far off nor does it represent a lofty and unattainable future. Rather, these ambitions are achievable today. For municipalities, leaders may find it difficult to know where to start, but the question is no longer when to start—the directive is clear to start now.

Sustainable action encompasses many different options, all of which can be tailor-made to the geography, the size, the population, and the needs of the particular municipality. City leaders can look to their neighbors, watch the advancing technologies, and even consult with experts in these types of green technologies and sustainability integrations (such as Joule Case and our efforts to bring mobile and module energy storage to cities across the country) to learn more.

Now is the time to be the leader that the citizens want to see, so we want to issue a challenge statement to municipalities: Take a hard look about what initiatives you’re offering today and compare that with what neighboring and similar cities across the country are doing. Instituting a green program or a sustainability project occasionally is not enough to hang your hat on. Rather, these principles should be engrained in every aspect of municipal action, so we challenge you to find new opportunities you can build sustainability into your community. We only have one planet, one environment, and one chance, so make the most of it!

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